An Interview With Beth Shepherd, NASA's Trainer Of The Stars!

Helping to prepare astronauts for and recover from space missions is Beth Shepherd, 43, a physical trainer and rehabilitation specialist for Johnson Space Center and the NASA. Find out how she trains astronauts to get ready for space...
About Beth Shepherd

Helping to prepare astronauts for and recover from space missions is Beth Shepherd, 43, a physical trainer and rehabilitation specialist for Johnson Space Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Shepherd has had an illustrious career, having paved the way for women in the sports world and now charting new territory in space. Shepherd's success began with an early interest in physical fitness during her school years. As a high school honor student and President of her senior class, Shepherd led Alexander High School, Alexander, NY as an All-County and All-State athlete in field hockey, volleyball, basketball, diving and softball.

Born April 9, 1960 in Batavia, NY, Shepherd has two sisters and two brothers who all reside in New York State. She is married to Captain (Retired) William M. Shepherd, United States Navy (USN), a former Navy SEAL and astronaut.

Shepherd received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education/Industrial Fitness from Slippery Rock University in 1982. As an undergraduate she was a Dean's List student, worked part-time as an exercise physiology lab assistant, and competed in field hockey and judo. Her success in judo included four team collegiate championships and placing in the top four at the national collegiate level three years in a row. In 1991, Shepherd earned a Master of Arts degree in Physical Education/Allied Health Research from Southwest Texas State University (SWTSU).

As a graduate student at SWTSU, Shepherd began her career as a strength and conditioning coach by developing training programs for all the male and female athletic programs except for football and track & field.

Relocating to Houston, in 1991, she became the fitness coordinator for the American General Executive Fitness Center and was responsible for developing exercise programs for large corporations and worked part time at Rice University as a strength and conditioning coach in the athletic department.

In January of 1993, she was promoted to the position of head strength and conditioning coach at Rice University and became only the second woman in the nation to coach a Division I College Football Program. Thanks in part to her effective conditioning programs, the Rice football team tied for the Southwest Conference Championship and beat the University of Texas for the first time in 30 years. That same year she worked part-time as a consultant with Krug Life Sciences and NASA, and implemented strength and conditioning programs for astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.

Beth's initial work at NASA focused on preparing astronauts for extravehicular activity (EVA) "space walks." This assignment was quickly expanded to include training for all astronauts assigned to long duration missions on the Russian Mir space station. Beth was a principal negotiator along with NASA flight surgeons, establishing and integrating the necessary medical operations and exercise countermeasures for the US and Russian programs.

She participated in the design and development of two exercise devices now being used on the International Space Station (ISS), which included flights in zero-g simulation aircraft and exercise on special platforms to test these devices on Earth. In January of 1996, she was appointed to a full time position as the lead for NASA's Astronaut Strength, Conditioning and Rehabilitation (ASCR) program.

As ASCR lead, she coordinates and executes the preflight preparation, in-flight monitoring, and post-flight rehabilitation of American astronauts who complete long-duration space missions on the Mir Space Station. She was assigned similar duties for selected astronauts preparing for Space Shuttle flights, including the physical training program for Senator John Glenn, who flew a second mission in space as a payload specialist aboard the Shuttle at age 77.

The importance of strength training to astronauts has grown over the years as missions have increased and ways to correct the problematic effects of prolonged exposure to microgravity, which include bone loss, muscle wasting and loss of cardiovascular condition, are being investigated. Strength training has become a main element in the preparation of a space mission as it improves the astronaut's physical abilities and overall health.

Commenting on the necessity of developing effective exercise protocols for astronauts is Beth's husband, Bill, a veteran of four space flights who has logged over 159 days in space. He was the commander of the first crew of the International Space Station (ISS). Bill commented:

    A major part of the present space program--the ISS--is a research laboratory which enables us to use the space microgravity environment to investigate a broad range of sciences, and to have a unique vantage point outside Earth's atmosphere. In a larger sense, the Space Station is our first step in determining man's place in the universe. It can provide important answers to the question--whether mankind will inhabit only the Earth, or whether we will have the ability to live and work elsewhere--away from the home planet.

    We now have humans who live apart from Earth for prolonged periods--as crews on the Space Station. A key question that remains unanswered is whether humans can travel the long distances required for the exploration of other planets, perform tasks necessary to carry out surface explorations, and return to Earth with good health and physical capacity. Developing effective exercise protocols and the equipment to carry them out remains a critical challenge for today's researchers and space travelers.

Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield, a veteran of two missions, is another firm believer in the benefits of strength training to astronauts. "Space walking is hard physical work. The suit is massive and stiff, and its internal pressure works against your every move. Going outside and building the Space Station often takes maximum reach, flexibility, and strength. All of these attributes are developed and increased through the astronaut physical training program. "Bodies By Beth" helps get us ready to go to the edge of exploration and perform, especially when we only get one try at it," Hadfield said. Without sufficient exercise, astronauts may be at increased risk for falls, osteoporosis, and physical incapacitation during emergencies.
(Click To Enlarge)
Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield

Upon their return to Earth, astronauts often suffer from poor balance and routinely experience lightheadedness and nausea. "Prolonged periods of time in space leads to muscle atrophy and bone loss," Shepherd said. "At NASA, we're seeing significant bone loss in the hip, pelvis and head of the femur. While we can't completely stop bone loss, through a well-developed exercise program, we can definitely minimize it to the best of our abilities. The bottom line is, the stronger you are, the better you will do in flight as well as after you return."

Exercise can reduce some of the physiological deficiencies associated with spaceflight, and getting the right exercise prescription is just what Shepherd is looking for. Currently training in Star City, Russia, I recently contacted her there and asked the following questions.

The Interview

Rob Wilkins: How did you position yourself for such a great and unique job?

Shepherd: The short story is someone referred a NASA rep to me. In '93, I received a phone call and was asked to submit a resume. I had only been the head strength and conditioning coach at Rice for about 5 1/2 months and was really busy. After a week, I had not sent a resume and decided it was too late and blew it off. I got called again the following week about sending it, I finally did, had an interview and supposedly out of 100 other applicants got the job.

Wilkins: When did NASA first recognize the benefits of having astronaut's weight train?

Shepherd: People were slowly starting to realize during the Shuttle-Mir program the importance of strength training. Honestly though it has taken these first few flights of the International Space Station to really bring it home to upper level management the importance of the weight training.

Wilkins: What type of strength training program do you design for astronauts? Does each crewmember receive their own individualized program? Can you provide a sample program?

Shepherd: Each astronaut is given an individualized program based upon their strengths, weaknesses, their mission goals and what they like & do not like to do. There is also an emphasis put on three lower body exercises, we call them the "Big 3," the squat, deadlift and heel raises.

The experience of the Russian long duration program on the Space Station Mir as well as data collected pre and post flight from our own seven astronauts that flew on Mir showed that the biggest bone losses occurred in the trochanter, femoral neck & calcaneus (hip, upper leg and heel). Ground base research of athletes and bed rest patients shows that the "Big 3" have the most effect on bone in those areas. For long duration crewmembers we use pre flight as a way for crewmembers to get in the habit of a daily routine and workouts are somewhat similar to what they will be doing in flight.

Exercise is scheduled six days per week for the in-flight program. Legs are done everyday, upper body every other or more, dependent upon the EVA schedule.

Wilkins: How much strength, bone, and cardiovascular conditioning does an astronaut lose on a typical mission?

Shepherd: For strength and cardio the range is 10-30%. We look at bone several ways. One is total body bone density loss and then we look at each individual site (hip, heel, low back, neck etc). During the Shuttle-Mir mission, we saw total bone losses of 10-20%. Again the biggest hits being taken in the hip, upper leg, heel and low back. On the ISS we are seeing less loss per site (but the losses are still significant) and some increase in bone in other sites. For a few crew members when you add that up the loss for total body bone density is 1% or less. The subject number is still too small though to call that statistically significant, so we are being cautiously optimistic. Results would indicate though that we are going in the right direction.

Wilkins: What is the average time period for an astronaut to recover from a space mission?

Shepherd: Everyone is different, especially if they are an experienced flyer. Repeat flyers tend to do better in areas of orthostatic intolerance & neuro-vestibular issues. With our ISS crews we are seeing the cardiovascular system and muscle strength/endurance recovering back to pre-flight baseline levels anywhere between 15-30 days. Bone takes a little longer and is also dependent on how hard the crewmember works post flight. The astronauts are only assigned to us for 45 days after they land then they get hit pretty hard with public appearance requests. They don't always have the time or the facilities to work out while they are on travel.

Wilkins: Once an astronaut returns to earth, what kind of rehab program do they perform?

Shepherd: Rehab starts on landing day with a lot of flexibility, contract-relax stretching and massage. It progresses from there to manual resistance, tubing, dumbbells, and selectorized machine equipment to free weights. There is a lot of focus put on balance, agility and coordination. Proprioception and kinesthetic awareness are highly effected (add the neuro-vestibular component to that and think about performing functions of daily life) and the agility, balance and coordination exercises increase speed of recovery in those areas. We also utilize the pool for non-impact running, low-impact plyos, stretching, swimming etc.
(Click To Enlarge)
NASA strength coach, Beth Shepherd and Russian Physical Trainer Slava Samartsev.

For some people the pool gives crew members that same feeling of being back in a micro-gravity environment and can be somewhat comforting.

Wilkins: Are any of the physiological experiments being conducted on the shuttle able to transfer to assist sport coaches design the perfect workout or help them improve the performance of their athletes?

Shepherd: When we get the kind of exercise equipment on board that we think could really make a difference that may be so. But initially I think what we learn from in-flight experience will be quicker recovery from surgery for the athlete, how to slow down or eliminate osteoporosis in the aging population, and rehab improvement for the neuro-vestibular patient.

Wilkins: What kind of exercise equipment is used aboard the shuttle? Does it take up a lot of room?

Shepherd: The exercise device of choice on the Shuttle is the cycle ergometer. It can't take up too much space or it wouldn't fly. It usually sits on the flight deck. On the ISS the US has a Treadmill with a Vibration Isolation System (TVIS), a cycle ergometer with a VIS (CEVIS) and a Resistive Exercise Device (RED- weight training device). The Russians have their own version of a cycle ergometer with they call the Velo-ergometer and they use the TVIS as well. Both cycles can be used as upper body ergometers too and is prescribed as a way to train for an EVA. The Russians have also added an attachment to their Velo so they can do some upper body resistive training.

Wilkins: Do astronauts follow a special diet? Do they use supplements or just TANG?

Shepherd: There is an entire department of folks who are dedicated to designing individual nutritional meals for each crew member. On the ISS the food that the crews have to choose from is split between US and Russian menus. One of the fun things crews get to do before they fly is to taste test the meals. They are also provided with a multi-vitamin to take daily.

Do they even make TANG any more?

Wilkins: Last question, how do astronauts go to the bathroom?

Shepherd: Do you really want me to explain that? My simple explanation: It involves different attachments based on gender and suction.

Outside of NASA, Shepherd serves as a strength and conditioning consultant to the San Diego Spirit Women's Professional Soccer Team. She is responsible for designing and implementing the teams off and in-season strength and conditioning programs. She also works one-on-one with professional and Olympic athletes.

Shepherd continues to search for the perfect fitness program to ensure the health and well being of all the astronauts assigned to the shuttle program and our partners in the International Partner space agencies. "I enjoy trying to come up with a way to improve astronauts' health during long-duration flights," she said.

This article is dedicated to the crew and families of the Space Shuttle Columbia, STS-107.

About The Author

Rob Wilkins, originally from Linden, NJ, is a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force stationed at The Pentagon, Washington, DC. Wilkins is also a Special Assistant to the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and a recipient of the IFBB Gold Medal. To contact Wilkins e-mail him at robifbb@yahoo.com.

* Special thanks to Major General Kevin Chilton, United States Air Force for his assistance with this article.
** For more information on American Astronaut, Bill Shepherd click on to http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/shepherd.html
** For more information on Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield click on to http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/hadfield.html

Thanks,